For Flyers, another summer of goalie uncertainty | Sam Donnellon
Can Carter Hart make the jump from juniors to the NHL? Don't count on it.
"I know it was a tough season for me and there were a lot of ups and downs, but I know I can be way better and more [consistent] than I was this year. I am going to use this year as a motivation, work harder in the summer, come back and be ready to go.'' — Michal Neuvirth, April 11, 2017
"I am changing my trainer and going to be doing my offseason in Canada. … I know I can play in this league. I know I can be the difference maker. I just got to find a way to stay healthy. I will do whatever it takes.'' – Michal Neuvirth, April 25, 2018
"I'm comfortable where we are as an organization with our goaltending. Brian Elliott played extremely well for us until he got hurt there. Neuvy, obviously, had some injury issues, but he gave us some good games and some not-so-good games. He is trying something new this summer, which I think is terrific. … He needs to find a way to stay healthy.'' – Flyers GM Ron Hextall, April 26, 2018.
Brian Elliott started 42 games for the Flyers this past season. That is exactly what was anticipated when Hextall signed him to a two-year, $4.5 million deal last summer.
How those games laid out, though, was the unanticipated part.
Elliott started 40 of the Flyers' first 55 games, which sometimes meant several in a short time window. Somewhere along that run, he suffered an abdominal injury that he at first tried to play through. But it eventually forced him to undergo surgery and miss all but the last two games of what remained in the regular season.
Without a prompt, Hextall introduced the idea during his end-of-season session with the media Thursday that such a workload might have contributed to the injury: "Ells played a lot of games, a lot of good games. It would have been nice to be able to back him off a little bit and minimize the risk of injury. I don't think that's why he got hurt. But did it play into it? Possibly.''
The record says they did well enough without him. They won seven of the first eight games he was sidelined, then reversed that, losing seven of their next eight. They got points in 10 of their final 11 games, but the team's consistency and confidence were noticeably different once he gave way to the almost nightly auditions that followed.
Elliott turned 33 on April 9. Only once, a decade ago, has he played in 50 or more games. Neuvirth is 30, but it sure seems like an old 30. He has incurred injuries and been bitten by the flu oddly and repeatedly. In his three seasons with the Flyers, Neuvirth has appeared in 87 games, including the playoffs.
"It can be disruptive, for sure,'' Hextall said of Neuvirth's track record. "That hurt us this year for sure.''
Midseason acquisition Petr Mrazek says he has been told he won't be back. Anthony Stolarz, who was supposed to provide depth at the position, missed the whole season after undergoing knee surgery last summer. Hextall said Thursday that Stolarz had injured the knee again.
Twenty-five-year-old Alex Lyon, who started seven games in goal for the Flyers this season, and Stolarz will be restricted free agents this summer. "We've got some sorting out to do,'' said Hextall. The bet here is that, given Lyon's solid work while up in the NHL, Stolarz doesn't return.
So how can anyone feel comfortable about this? Yes, Carter Hart will be coming someday from juniors and sure looks like the real deal, but Hextall scorned the idea that he would be pushed into the NHL without the proper amount of AHL seasoning. That sounds like at least one full season, if not most of two seasons. When Felix Sandstrom was in camp last summer, the plan was for the now-21-year-old to put in a solid season in the Swedish Pro League, then head here for some AHL seasoning. But he, too, was hobbled all season by that dreaded core-muscle injury, pushing his timetable back as well.
Meanwhile, the Flyers are midstream into a youth movement. But several of their skill players — Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds — are pushing or already at 30. What's interesting is that while the Flyers GM scoffs at the idea of Hart's being an anomaly, he often brings up the advanced ages of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau when the youthful San Jose Sharks made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals a couple of seasons ago.
His bet, it seems, interpreting all the words spoken last week, is that today's best players will have enough left in the tank when the day comes — if it ever does — that goaltending is a backbone to this team, and not its endless Achilles heel.
"It's all about … as they get older, our younger players are going to take a bigger piece of the pie, so they don't have to produce at the level they're producing at right now,'' Hextall said of the veteran core. "If they slip a little bit, the younger guys are coming up and it all balances together. If you look at teams that win, they typically got their older group, and their middle group, and maybe a couple of young guys. That's sort of the way we're going, where our younger guys are going to move into that middle group and your older guys are still good players, but they don't have to stand alone.''